A Literary Un-Valentine’s Day

Every Valentine’s Day we are bombarded with idealized images of true love and passion, and for the unlucky in love, the holiday can be difficult to stomach. In the spirit of demonstrating that matters could be worse, we offer two literary anti-love-scenes, taken from the digital pages of Literature Criticism Online.

Consider the plight of Helen in All’s Well that Ends Well, treated in volume 163 of Shakespearean Criticism. She cures the king of a life-threatening illness and his reward is to grant her a choice of husbands from the royal court. She chooses Bertram, a count who thinks he is too good for her and who absconds immediately following their wedding. He vows to recognize their marriage only if she becomes pregnant with his child—a seemingly impossible task given that he refuses to consummate the union. So Helen resorts to trickery in complicity with the sympathetic Diana, a young girl who is the object of Bertram’s affection, and her widowed mother. Helen slips into bed with Bertram, who thinks he is cuddling with Diana, manages to get pregnant, and claims her husband. As Michael Bristol notes in the aptly-named essay “How Dark Was It in That Room?,” no less a reader than Katherine Mansfield claimed to be “scandalized” by the scene:

I must say Helen is a terrifying female. Her virtue, her persistence, her pegging away after the odious  Bertram…. And then telling the whole story to that good widow woman. And that tame fish Diana. As to lying in Diana’s bed and enjoying the embraces meant for Diana—well, I know nothing more sickening. It would take a respectable woman to do such a thing….What a cup of tea the widow and D. must have enjoyed while it was taking place.

Flannery O’Connor devised an even darker tryst in “Good Country People,” which is covered in Short Story Criticism, volume 168. The story concerns an unhappy thirty-two-year-old woman named Hulga, who lives with her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, in a rural southern community. Hulga has a Ph.D. in philosophy, but a weak heart and the loss of a leg in a hunting accident have kept her from leaving the nest. Lonely and sullen, she passes the time by trying to antagonize her conventional mother with her views on existentialism, atheism, and nihilism. One day, a Bible salesman named Manley Pointer arrives and charms Mrs. Hopewell with a string of platitudes about Christianity. Hulga, initially disgusted by him, later decides that she can use her superior intellect to toy with the simple-minded boy. As Christina Bieber Lake notes in her essay “Body Matters,” Hulga “imagines that she will disabuse him of his innocence by seducing and abandoning him, because ‘true genius can get an idea across even to an inferior mind.’” At Hulga’s suggestion, she and Pointer go on a picnic and eventually end up in the hay loft of a barn where—to her surprise—the Bible salesman shows that he is not innocent at all. He kisses her and talks her into removing her prosthetic leg, after which he produces a hollowed-out Bible containing whiskey, pornographic playing cards, and condoms. He laughs at her sense of superiority, explaining, “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born.” Taking the prosthetic leg as a prize, he leaves the bewildered Hulga in the barn alone.

And so if this February 14th finds you without a valentine, take heart. At least you aren’t Bertram with a baby on the way, or solitary Hulga in a hayloft without a leg to stand on.

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